What is a southern right whale? Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis ) are about the size of a bus. These marine mammals each weigh up to 80 tonnes and may reach 18 metres long. They also have the largest testes and penises of any living thing, with penises longer than 14 per cent of their body length. Although southern right whales are huge, bulky creatures, they are also agile and active animals, and their acrobatic antics can keep whale watchers amazed and entranced for hours. However, their commonest behaviour is lying around like logs at the surface.
Footage courtesy of MIRG Australia (www.mirg.org.au)/Blue Office Productions
What do they look like? Southern right whales have horny growths called callosities on the top of the head. Southern right whales harbour large quantities of parasites (small crustaceans known as whale lice), and it is possible that the callosities may serve to reduce the area of the body in which parasites can inhabit. The patterns formed by the callosities are different for each individual, which is useful for researchers collecting information on patterns of movement and behaviour, as they can easily tell which whale is which. The head of a southern right whale is large — up to a quarter of the total length of the body — and the lower jawline is distinctively bowed. They do not have a fin on the back. The flippers are broad, triangular and flat and the body colour ranges from blue-black to light brown. There are often white markings, usually on the belly. The twin blowholes produce a high, V-shaped blow.
Where do they live? Southern right whales live in the cooler latitudes of the southern hemisphere, where they were once abundant. Regular whale watching tours that encounter southern right whales operate from Albany and Esperance in winter. They can also be seen from the shore in places such as the proposed Ngari Capes Marine Park (between Busselton and Augusta) and Point Ann east of Bremer Bay in the Fitzgerald National Park. From time to time during the winter months, people living in the Perth metropolitan area can sometimes easily see them from shore, especially in the Marmion Marine Park.
What they eat and how: Southern right whales are ‘baleen' whales which have horny plates of baleen hanging down from their upper jaws. They sieve swarms of plankton from the water through the fibrous inner hairs of the baleen plates. Most feeding is thought to occur in the highly productive polar areas during summer, but they do not move as far south as humpbacks or other baleen whales.
Threats: These gentle giants were hunted by whalers for their oil and baleen. In fact, they were called right whales because in the days of open-boat whaling with hand harpoons they were the ‘right' ones to catch. They were slow-swimming, floated when dead, and yielded large amounts of valuable products - particularly oil for illumination and lubrication. More than 100,000 were caught in the nineteenth century alone. Populations declined to dangerously low levels even before the end of the nineteenth century. Current threats include collision with ships, disturbance at calving grounds, seismic and defence operations and entanglement in fishing gear.
Behaviour: Southern right whales regularly engage in tail lobbing, flipper slapping and even head standing. After they breach, the sound of these mammoth acrobats hitting the water can be heard from a great distance. They are usually seen in mother and calf pairs, but occasionally hang out in groups of up to 20. The mammals may moan.
Breeding and caring for young: During summer, right whales prefer the open ocean, away from the coast, but during early winter and spring the cows come in close to shore. There, near the surf line in sheltered bays, they give birth to their young, before returning to deeper waters as summer approaches. On average, they calve once every three years. Newborn animals are between four and a half to six metres long and weigh approximately one and a half tonnes.
Conservation status: Southern right whales are threatened and given special protection under the Wildlife Conservation Act. It is estimated that the entire world population of southern right whales only numbers several thousand, compared to an original population before whaling of more than 100,000. Recent estimates have put the population along the southern coast of Australia at only about 1500 individuals. They are thought to be recovering at a rate of about seven per cent each year, and are once again becoming a spectacle along our coastline.
How you can protect the southern right whale: Follow the whale watchers code. Boats should not approach closer than 100 metres to a whale, a vessel should not separate a group or mother and calf and, if you are in the water and a whale approaches, you must stay at least 30 metres from the whale. If you should spot a whale entangled in rope or fishing equipment call the Department of Environment and Conservation so the department's special whale and dolphin disentanglement team can help the animal.
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